At the Northern New Mexico College Sostenga Farm, Joseluis Ortiz called his mayordomo, Vernon McCall, to ask for water from the acequia.
He showed McCall the corn and the kale, the turnips and the calabacitas to which Ortiz and farm interns have been tending over the course of the summer.
When they arrived at the salad greens, Ortiz explained that he gives them to a food pantry at Northern, and the mayordomo began to smile.
He realized Ortiz was the farmer who had grown the greens that Northern gave to his daughter. McCall’s wife had called the salad the best she had ever eaten in her life.
“It was like this cycle, this reciprocation of us giving this food to the students who are in need in our community who are the actual owners, or caretakers of this space, because it’s the College and without the students this doesn’t exist, and then it naturally going back to the person who has cultivated and stewarded the acequia to flow, to give us water,” Ortiz said.
Through a partnership between Northern and the Green Roots Institute, a nonprofit founded by farmer Don Bustos to foster community self-determination, Ortiz, who serves as a liaison to the College for Green Roots, has been working the field since the spring, planting, teaching youths how to farm with traditional agricultural practices, battling elk and gophers, harvesting and providing community members with free fresh produce.
The dream of Bustos, Ortiz and College faculty advisors is to create “a space that promotes healing, community development, leadership development, food production, and also is a place of learning and education for an intergenerational group of interested people,” Ortiz said.
Through the work there, they hope to uplift the culture and traditions of Northern New Mexico, he said.
Professors could weave hands-on agricultural instruction into their classes–Assistant Professor of Nursing Ana X. Gutiérrez Sisneros, for instance, plans to bring students to the farm for her community health course, and she also wants to plant an herbal garden there, she said.
Ortiz has been teaching a Northern student and an Española Valley High School student to farm at the field.
“It’s peaceful being out here,” said Enrico Rodriguez, the Northern student who is interning with Ortiz. “Everyone coming together, watching the plants grow, even within a day, if you’re really observant and you take notice to what you have out here, you can see the squash or the jalapeños, just within a day, each day they grow a little bit bigger, the plant gets prettier.”
The field creates the opportunity for healthy, fresh food that is grown in the community to remain in the community, rather than being sent to farmers markets elsewhere in the state, said Northern Director of Equity and Diversity Patricia Trujillo.
For community members who drive past the field and see it producing more than it has in years–8-foot tall cornstalks and behind them a field of green crops–it has become a symbol of hope, she said.
“I’ve heard from several people that they’ll just drive by and especially now the corn is ginormous, they go by and they see the beautiful corn, and it gives them a sense of connectivity,” she said.
The Sostenga Farm was founded around 2007 by then Northern University Center Director Camilla Bustamante. Bustamante envisioned a circuit from the farm to a commercial kitchen and a coffee and sandwich shop on campus–a vision which was realized, until grants that had made it possible expired, Trujillo said.
After Bustamante left Northern, the College allowed the American Friends Service Committee to use the field as a teaching space where young people could learn how to grow food. For five years, the Committee trained farmers there, until the program moved to Chamisal.
“At that point it was really a chance for us at Northern to come together and to really think about how the farm is the heart of our school, and that it should be the heart of our school,” Trujillo said.
The College itself is located on former farmland, and Trujillo views its farm as an integral part of the institution’s heritage, she said.
Bustos and Ortiz began working last winter with College faculty–Trujillo, Environmental Sciences Assistant Professor Joaquin Gallegos and Gutiérrez Sisneros–to imagine the future of the space.
Before COVID-19 struck, they planned to host educational community events there, where people could celebrate and continue to practice traditional agriculture, Ortiz said.
But when gathering became dangerous, they quickly shifted gears and began brainstorming ways to provide community members in need with healthy food.
Ortiz has been bringing the produce he harvests to Northern, which in turn, through a food pantry, has been offering it to students who need the support.
“Necessity helped us to push our efforts forward by a lot in a way that we hadn’t expected,” Trujillo said. “So all of a sudden, we have this beautiful robust farm-to-food pantry program that we’ve been running all summer long.”
Ortiz has also been providing Breath of My Heart Birthplace with produce, and the interns he teaches share it with their families. Other partnerships are in the works.
Healthy food, Trujillo said, is a form of medicine.
“Knowing that people were enjoying those salad greens across the community is really powerful at a time when we’re all filled with so much fear about illness, and so there’s this other healing component that occurs when we do these kinds of projects,” she said.
The pandemic reinforces the need for healthy local food supply, Bustos said.
The food chain stemming from the Sostenga Farm “is as short as possible, from direct farmer to institution to consumer, instead of going through the trucking supplies and all these other supply chains that are in the middle,” he said.
Trujillo described watching the variety of crops and the green emerge as “joyful.”
“There’s no other way to put it,” she said. “And that joy has really translated into care for our community.”